In the era of the College Football Playoff, we tend to put more focus on the top teams in the country than we already have been since the dawn of the BCS. The College Football Playoff may be the sport's biggest event, but it's hardly the only thing in college football that makes the sport great. When the 2019 season begins, there will be 130 teams competing for a playoff berth, a conference title, a division title or maybe just a bowl berth. Every team has something to strive for, even if some goals are more realistic than others.
And I like to look outside the top 25 for interesting stories to follow during the year, and one of those stories is a program that won't be in the top 25 once the season begins, but could get there before it's over.
Matt Rhule is entering his third season as the coach at Baylor. He inherited one of the most unique situations in the sport. He took over for a program that needed a complete overhaul, not because it hadn't been winning games, but because of what it allowed to happen within the program to continue winning games. Baylor should never allow itself to forget its grievous mistakes during the Art Briles era, but at the same time, it must move on. Rhule was charged with not only changing the culture within the program but proving to everyone associated with the university that you can win football games without turning a blind eye to horrific behavior from your players. If Rhule can do that, then maybe those who have blindly defended Briles because he won games will realize that those wins weren't worth the cost they came at.
And I think Rhule can do just that. I was a fan of Rhule's from his time at Temple and thought he was a perfect hire for Baylor. Both for who he seems to be as a coach, and because Rhule plays a style of football that's different from what you typically see in the Big 12. I'm a firm believer in zigging while everybody else is zagging, and Rhule is trying to do that.
Early results when overhauling a program and style were exactly what you'd expect. Rhule took over Baylor before the 2017 season and suddenly a program that had won 50 games in Briles' final five seasons (as well as 7-6 in a season under interim coach Jim Grobe) found itself going 1-11. You knew the rebuild wasn't going to be easy, nor quick, but then 2018 happened. The Bears improved by six wins and beat Vanderbilt 45-38 in the Texas Bowl in one of the most exciting games of the bowl season to finish the year 7-6. While 7-6 isn't a great record, coming off a one-win season it's a tremendous improvement, and it's more impressive when you consider that of its six losses, the Bears only looked out of their element in a 33-point loss to Oklahoma and a 44-point loss to West Virginia, both on the road.
Now, entering 2019, the Bears are poised to take another step forward. Granted, while going from one win to seven isn't easy, it's likely easier than going from seven wins to 10. Still, even if 10 wins is unrealistic, this is a team that can get to eight or even nine if things go right.
One of the reasons for that is quarterback Charlie Brewer. As a sophomore last year, Brewer finished with 3,019 yards passing with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Those numbers aren't eye-popping, particularly in the Big 12, but Brewer, like a lot of young quarterbacks, improved as the year went along.
Brewer suffered a concussion in the loss to West Virginia, but not before tossing three interceptions on only eight pass attempts. The concussion kept him out of most of the next week's game against Oklahoma State, but when he returned, he played well. In Baylor's final five games of the season against Oklahoma State, Iowa State, TCU, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt, Brewer threw for 1,199 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 8.8 yards per attempt. If that kind of improvement continues, Brewer could be in line to be one of the best QBs in the Big 12 this season. He certainly has an impressive target to go to in the passing game, as the 6-foot-3 Denzel Mims returns for his senior season after catching eight touchdowns and averaging 14.4 yards per reception last season. With Jalen Hurd moving on to the NFL, Mims will take on a more significant role in the offense, and is capable of being a consistent chain-mover.
The Bears also have a nice stable of backs in Trestan Ebner, JaMycal Hasty, and Craig Williams. Last year's leading rusher John Lovett has moved to safety, but will likely see carries in certain situations as well.
A question will be how all of this works behind an offensive line that struggled last season but should have more depth in 2019.
A bigger question will be a Baylor defense that proved to be problematic in 2018. It was a big play waiting to happen, as Baylor's defense allowed 25 touchdowns of 30-plus yards. Only Georgia State (20) allowed more plays of 50-plus yards than Baylor's 19. Still, big plays are going to happen in the Big 12, so it's foolish to believe Baylor can erase those problems in one season. What might be easier to accomplish is being more disruptive on defense.
Baylor forced only 10 turnovers last season, which ranked last in the Big 12 and was tied for 127th nationally. In a stat of my own that I call Chaos Rate (it's Football Outsider's Havoc Rate, but with blocked kicks/punts added in for good measure), Baylor ranked 100th nationally, and that number was buoyed by a nation-leading 7 blocked kicks (Auburn and Toledo also had 7). Baylor's defense can take steps forward just by finding ways to be more disruptive. Considering how young the unit was last season, it's not crazy to believe it will take a step forward in that department in 2019. Another year in the system and being more comfortable allows a defense to play freely and with more confidence, and that in turn leads to plays being made.
Baylor needs its defense to make plays if it's going to improve in 2019.
I think it can. I think it will. That's why Baylor may not be a team people are talking about as a Big 12 contender, but it's a team I'll be following closely during the 2019 season.